The Tennessee players walked slowly off The Summitt court on Monday night wearing looks of disbelief and anguish.
After a season of proving so many people wrong, the Vols appeared helpless to stop Middle Tennessee State from making all the right plays over the final six minutes.
The Blue Raiders added a big, orange jewel to a season already filled with riches and records, defeating Tennessee 71-64 in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament on Monday night before a raucous crowd of 12,038 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
MTSU's crowning moment came at the six-minute mark when, trailing by eight, the Blue Raiders found another gear and closed the game on a 15-0 run to advance to play at home Wednesday against Minnesota.
The Vols finished the season 19-15, struggling as much to explain what happened in the closing minutes as they did shooting the ball (22 of 58 from the floor, 1-for-13 beyond the 3-point line) against MTSU.
"I wish I knew," UT point guard Trae Golden said. "We didn't capitalize from the free-throw line, we didn't defend well down the stretch; there's a lot of things we could have done better."
Second-team All-SEC forward Jeronne Maymon, who didn't play in the NIT opener last Tuesday on account of a bruised knee, came off the bench to lead UT with 17 points and seven rebounds.
Freshman Jarnell Stokes had 15 points and Golden added 14.
"I thought our guys did a good job from where we started to the end; I saw progress," said first-year UT coach Cuonzo Martin, whose team earned the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament after replacing four starters and being picked to finish 11th at the preseason Media Day in October.
"We just fell short, (and) we were out of our consistent flow offensively," he said. "I think we just lost to a good team."
Sun Belt Conference regular-season champion MTSU, which by improving to 27-6 added to its school-record number of victories, held the Vols to 0-for-9 shooting from the floor after Jordan McRae's drive gave UT a 64-56 lead with 7:11 left and brought the crowd to its feet in anticipation of what would have been a ninth-straight home-court win.
The Blue Raiders got it done off the dribble and at the free-throw line in the clutch.
MTSU point guard Bruce Massey eclipsed his previous career-high of 14 points by scoring eight of his 20 points over the final six minutes, and the Blue Raiders hit nine of 10 free throws over that span.
Massey, who also pulled down a career-high 10 rebounds, blocked a Golden shot with 1:06 left and the Blue Raiders up 65-64. Massey followed with a jumper at the other end of the floor with 37.5 seconds left to extend the lead before Skylar McBee missed his attempt to tie the game with a 3-pointer with 26 seconds left.
MTSU, which entered the game having lost nine straight to UT since beating the Vols 85-80 in the teams' first meeting in the 1988 NIT in Murfreesboro, iced the game by going 4-for-4 from the line over the final 17.2 seconds.
"It's obviously tough; you never want to go out in a losing effort," UT fifth-year senior Cameron Tatum said dejectedly. "It's all about growing up. It's all about handling adversity, trying to learn from it, and becoming a better man and a better person."
The Vols handled adversity early in the game, rallying from a 12-point deficit to cut the Blue Raiders' lead to 36-34 at halftime.
Moments after Tatum hit UT's first and only 3-pointer of the game on the Vols' first possession of the second half, Maymon followed with a bucket inside to give Tennessee its first lead (39-38) since starting out 2-0.
The Vols appeared to be in good shape; Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year LaRon Dendy was saddled with three fouls and was never much of a factor en route to a 10-point, nine-rebound effort.
A Stokes dunk at the 14:38 mark sparked an 11-3 run that gave UT a 56-48 lead and the ball after MTSU coach Kermit Davis was whistled for a technical with 11:09 left.
The Vols were in control when McRae scored in transition after Tatum made an acrobatic save of a ball going out of bounds at the other end.
It proved to be the final highlight of the season for UT.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32